Big changes could be coming to East Coast herring fishery

PORTLAND, Maine — Federal fishing regulators are considering changing the way they manage one of the largest fisheries on the East Coast to better account for its impact on the environment and other industries.

The regulatory New England Fishery Management Council has released a group of alternatives for how it could change management of Atlantic herring. The small, schooling fish are harvested from Maine to Florida and are used for fish oil, food for humans and bait for fishermen and lobstermen.

The proposed rules are focused in part on the issue of potential "localized depletion," which is a controversial subject in the fishery. Some environmentalists, members of other fisheries and ecotourism businesses claim that intense concentrations of herring boats can negatively impact the marine environment by reducing availability of other species.

Atlantic herring are a key piece of the ocean food web, and their availability is important to everyone from whale watch boat captains to tuna fishermen.

"Some people do not think we have localized depletion, and others think we do," said Janice Plante, a spokeswoman for the fishery management council, adding that new rules "might change where they catch this fish."

The proposed changes could alter when and where fishermen are allowed to pursue herring and what kind of gear they can use. The council voted Tuesday to send the proposal out for public comment. The council says public hearings will be held in early 2018 and a final decision will be made later in the year.

The proposal includes nine different options, one of which is doing nothing. New rules would impact herring fishing in the waters off of New England and New York, where most herring is harvested.

Fishermen caught nearly 140 million pounds of herring last year. Most of the catch came to land in Maine and Massachusetts, but New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida were major producers as well.

The 2016 haul was the smallest since 2002. The catch was worth more than $28.8 million at the dock, though, which was one of the highest totals on record. Herring is especially valuable as bait for lobsters.

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This story has been corrected to say there are nine different options, not 10.

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